Question: Is Billy Crystal gay, or am I thinking of a part he played on TV? Todd M., Grafton, Vt.
Televisionary: I'm not in the business of defining anyone's sexuality for them, Todd, but I can tell you Crystal's married with kids. So I'd say the signs point to "no." Or, to put it another way: He's not a gay man, but he played one on TV.
Most likely you are thinking of Jodie Dallas, who, introduced when ABC's Soap debuted amid a storm of controversy in September 1977, was one of TV's first openly gay characters. When the show hit the air, plenty of people assumed the same thing you did and, unfortunately, caused a lot of trouble for Crystal. (Keep in mind that nearly 30 years ago gay TV figures weren't the much-loved hipsters of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or Will & Grace they were alien and threatening to a lot of previously sheltered viewers.)
It started with a group of teens who saw the comedian/actor and his wife through in New York's Kennedy Airport, yelled, "Hey, there's the fairy!" and followed them all the way to their cab. And even those who held it down to conversational tones didn't seem to understand he was just playing a role. "People would walk up to me at parties and whisper, 'Hey, you aren't what they say you are, are you?'" he told TV Guide in 1980. "And I just wanted to shout at them, 'Yeah, and what if I am?'"
Part of the problem was that Jodie was a caricature whose sexuality was played solely for laughs when the show launched, which managed to draw fire from both sides of the issue gay-rights activists who decried the stereotyping and religious groups who objected to Jodie and pretty much every other character on the series. But by the end of the third season, Jodie was a single father in the middle of a custody battle, and the strongest sign of his slow transformation into a three-dimensional character was that the audience wanted him to win it. "Billy Crystal took a brutally difficult role," Soap creator Susan Harris said at the time, "a dangerous part, a character that is the butt of jokes in this country, and made him warm and lovable and funny. Billy made Jodie Dallas someone people root for."
That he did. And along the way, the show that kicked up such a fuss before it ever even hit the air grew to be better accepted, both by the outraged who saw it wasn't as bad as they thought it would be and the average viewer who just thought it was funny.
Of course, nobody could have foreseen such a happy outcome when the show was being attacked from all sides, taking heat from people and groups who hadn't even seen before loudly protesting its very existence. The whole ruckus started when Harris and partner Paul Junger Witt attended a press party held by ABC to showcase what execs thought were their two most notable upcoming shows, Soap and Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Reporters showed up ready to hate Harris and Witt's show, and promptly set about putting that hatred into printed words after leaving the party. "They painted a very sexual picture of Soap, thus destroying viewer objectivity," Witt complained in 1977. "It provided a negative frame of reference. The thing started to snowball."
Sex, from wealthy wife Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and daughter Corrine (Diana Canova) both carrying on affairs with tennis pro Peter Campbell (Robert Urich) to Jodie's orientation, was a magnet for critics' fury. And after Newsweek reported that the "promiscuous" Corinne would "try to seduce a Jesuit priest (in church)," the Los Angeles Catholic archdiocese publication Tidings blasted it in an editorial. "Has ABC gone mad?" the editor, who also hadn't seen the show, asked. The Southern Baptists demanded that the "morally reprehensible" show be canned and the Catholic Conference, none of whom had seen the show either, called for "action to prevent this debasement of the medium through contempt for human beings."
Then something very odd happened. People actually watched the series and found it wasn't nearly as objectionable as they'd feared. Heck, it wasn't even as racy as Three's Company, which preceded it on the schedule. After 11 episodes, ABC's New York switchboard had logged only 243 calls about Soap. And even the Catholic Conference had calmed down, its spokesman unable to muster much ire when asked if the show was offensive or not. "Offensive?" he asked, pausing for a long moment. "We find it... dull."
But the ultimate authority on the sinful-or-not question, as far as I'm concerned, spoke through Helmond. "When I got this part on Soap, my grandmother called me," the actress said in 1978. "'I've heard some bad things about this new show in church,' she told me. 'Are those bad things true?' I told her as much as I knew, and she said, 'Will you be taking your clothes off?' I said I'd gotten a little past the age where I'd be doing that in public. Then I asked her if she would be watching the show, since they'd advised against it in church. She's past 90 now, and she told me she thought she was old enough to make up her own mind. And do you know what she told me after she'd watched the first episode? She called me up and said, 'It seems to me it's a lot like what we do down here at church suppers and the bridge club. A whole lot of talk about sex, and very little action!'"